The appeal of public records

No one, if they’re being honest, will dispute the contention that Massachusetts’s public records law is toothless and the lack of penalties for refusing to comply with it leads agencies at every level to flout the statute with impunity.

One of the biggest areas of concern is finding some sort of stick – carrots don’t seem to work – to prod officials to respond to requests, especially those of the media whose job it is to shine light into darkness, or so we think. Beginning in March of last year, Secretary of State William Galvin‘s office has kept an online running list of appeals for public records. Since then, there have been 1,228 appeals, plus at least one more this week from CommonWealth regarding the consultant’s report on the Green Line extension boondoggle.

The leader in appeals, far and away, is the Boston Globe‘s Todd Wallack, who has filed 91 since that time to a variety of state and local agencies. Wallack has been one of the media’s loudest voices in pushing for public records reforms and has carved out a niche at the paper,often working with other reporters on data-driven stories.

Andrew Quemere and Maya Shaffer of the online Bay State Examiner combined for 56 appeals in that time, mostly from state and local police looking into uses of deadly force. Freelancer Colman Herman, a regular contributor to CommonWealth and a thorn in state agencies’ side for his dogged pursuit of records, has filed 41 appeals with Galvin’s office.

When it comes to thorns, few are as prickly as Craig Shibley, who writes a blog under the title “The Barre Muckraker.” Shibley has filed 29 appeals and has so incensed Barre officials that he has been barred from public meetings in Barre and arrested for disturbing the peace.

Interestingly, Shawn Musgrave, formerly an editor and investigative reporter at Muckrock.com who moved over to New England Center for Investigative Reporting last month, has filed just 10 appeals despite his former site offering itself as a conduit for people seeking public records. Bret Hauff, an Emerson College journalism student and an intern at NECIR, has submitted 17 appeals to the public records supervisor. Erin Smith, the Boston Herald‘s chief investigative reporter, has only filed seven appeals while Sean Driscoll of the Cape Cod Times has filed eight. That could be an indicator that their requests have routinely been met or that they see the futility in pursuing an appeal.

Galvin’s office touts an 86 percent closure rate of appeals, and while the number is accurate, it is misleading. The vast majority of those appeals involve complaints that the agency failed to respond within 10 days as required by law, though it’s often months after the request is filed. Supervisor of Public Records Shawn Williams sends a form letter outlining the requirements for responses and then deems the case closed. But all that normally does is trigger a response, which could be a denial, an exorbitant fee demand, or even just an acknowledgement that the request was received. It doesn’t necessarily mean the requested records were provided and, in most cases, they aren’t.

Among the biggest offenders is the State Police, who have been the subject of 68 appeals for nonresponse, denials, and eye-popping fee estimates. The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the State Police, has been the focus of 19 more appeals. The Department of Correction has been cited in 41 appeals, including many from inmates.The state’s district attorneys have been the subject of a combined 73 appeals. The MBTA has been cited in 24 appeals.

When it comes to foot-dragging, the city of Boston is no piker, with 99 appeals being filed stemming from requests to the mayor’s office, the City Council, and police and fire departments. The inaptly named Office of Media Relations for the police department has been the target of eight additional appeals.

The House passed its version of public records law reform just before the six-week holiday break after sitting on it for the entire legislative year, but the measure appears to do little to open access. The House bill would allow those who are stonewalled on requests to recover legal fees if they have to go to court to free the public records.

Galvin, who had promised to bring a ballot measure to force reform, dropped his effort before filing signatures, saying he is confident the Legislature will act. Senate President Stan Rosenberg says that chamber will focus on its response when it returns in January but whatever comes out will have to be reconciled with the House bill, so changes are still a way off.

— JACK SULLIVAN.

 

BEACON HILL

Gov. Charlie Baker, in a speech to area newspaper publishers, says his office will comply with the public records law, but he offered no encouragement to change that law so that the governor’s office is covered by it. (Boston Herald) Baker shares personal insights about himself and why his favorability ratings are so high in a speech to the Lynn Area Chamber of Commerce. (The Item)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Organizers of the effort to recall Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera submit 7,950 signatures, 2,30 more than required. (Eagle-Tribune)

The Attorney General’s office has overruled a bylaw passed by Westport voters that would restrict hunting on private property, ruling only the state can regulate those laws. (Standard-Times)

CASINOS

Mayor Marty Walsh is dealt a crushing defeat in his attempt to block a casino in Everett as a judge dismisses all the claims in a suit he filed. (CommonWealth)

Massachusetts Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby said he wants to hear what Springfield residents think of the MGM redesign. (Masslive)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

A Boston Herald editorial calls out President Obama and Democrats for being “in denial” about the San Bernardino shootings being a terrorist act. A Globe editorial calls out Republicans for being in denial about the epidemic of mass shootings in the US and the fact that stronger gun control measures could make a real difference. The National Review says the cacophony over the number of mass shootings is media-driven and by using the FBI metric, there have only been 67 such massacres this year.

The Pentagon says women can now serve in front-line combat positions. (WBUR)

The US Senate approves legislation repealing much of Obamacare and defunding Planned Parenthood. (The Hill)

At Worcester’s Wesley United Methodist Church, area Muslims explain their faith and their fears in the wake of terrorist attacks. (Telegram & Gazette)

ELECTIONS

Could Chris Christie, fresh off his endorsement from the New Hampshire Union-Leader, be the one candidate who could catch Donald Trump in the New Hampshire primary? (Boston Globe)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Kathryn Rodgers says Boston should stamp out the use of flame retardant on furniture. (CommonWealth)

State retailers are backing a bill filed by state Rep. Mathew Muratore, a Plymouth Republican, to strike a law requiring large retailers to pay overtime rates to employees who work on Sundays. (Boston Herald)

Uber raises money at rates that would put its value at $62.5 billion. (Bloomberg) Lyft has joined with Asia’s three largest ride-hailing companies in a global alliance to challenge Uber’s grasp on the market. (New York Times)

The family owners of Duxbury-based 600 lb Gorillas — some seriously good chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches — are suing their ice cream supplier claiming the quality of the product has gone down resulting in lower sales. (Patriot Ledger)

EDUCATION

Mayor Marty Walsh is taking heat from a group of Boston public school parents who say his plan to offer a streamlined single application for district and charter schools is a part of backdoor strategy to boost charters at the expense of the district system. (Boston Globe)

Educators and administrators from from Brockton and Taunton urged state officials to reject a proposed charter school in Brockton, saying it would drain resources from two struggling cities that are achieving success despite already lean resources. (The Enterprise)

Donna Housman identifies social-emotional learning as the missing link in education reform. (CommonWealth)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Apparently concluding the best defense is a good offense, Partners HealthCare CEO David Torchiana told a breakfast meeting of business leaders yesterday that health care in Massachusetts is “very affordable,” citing figures showing that premiums represent a slightly smaller share of median household income here than for all households nationally. (Boston Globe)

TRANSPORTATION 

Congressional leaders reach an agreement on a five-year, $281 billion deal to fund the Highway Trust Fund. (U.S. News & World Report)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A new state-funded report says there are nearly 99,000 clean energy jobs in Massachusetts, but do the numbers add up? (CommonWealth)

A new WBUR poll finds most people are worried about climate change and willing to pay $10 more per month on their utility bills to reduce greenhouse gases. But what they say and what they do are two different things; the poll finds most people aren’t paying attention to the Paris climate change talks and the reality is few pay more for green energy.

US Sen. Kelly Ayotte and US Rep. Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire come out against the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline. (Masslive)

The UMass Foundation that oversees the university’s investment portfolio will divest all coal stocks. (State House News)

State Rep. Bruce Ayers of Quincy is pushing an idea to turn four century-old unused sewage storage tanks on Moon Island in Boston Harbor, capable of holding 50 million gallons of water, into vats for fish and shellfish farms. (Patriot Ledger)

A contested solar project in Southborough goes forward. (MetroWest Daily News)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The judge in the Philip Chism murder trial bars the defense from calling a witness who was going to testify that Chism’s brain resembled someone with schizophrenia. (Eagle-Tribune)

MEDIA

Jim Rich, the editor of the New York Daily News, defends his paper’s controversial “God isn’t fixing this” headline in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings. (Washington Post)

Ken Doctor sits down with Marty Baron, the executive editor of the Washington Post and former editor of the Boston Globe. (Nieman Journalism Lab)

As alternative weeklies close across the country, Governing says the biggest loser is good government.

Paul Levy, after seeing the new movie Bridge of Spies in which Tom Hanks plays a lawyer tasked with defending an accused Communist spy during the McCarthy era, is moved to recount his and his family’s ordeal when he was head of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and made an unpopular decision to site a landfill for Boston Harbor waste in Walpole.